“So Bill,” said my client,* diving right in without any preliminary niceties.
“You are NOT going to believe what happened.”
She started laughing maniacally.
“Uhhh…” I countered, with deep empathic insight.
“C’mon. You know what it is. What have I been bellyaching about for eight months?”
I had an inkling, but the faux hilarity was throwing me off the scent. I thought: What would Columbo do?
This client, who we’ll call Trish, gesticulated wildly, filling up my Zoom window with streaks of hands and arms.
“I GOT THE COVID!” Trish blurted.
I couldn’t yet tell if she was disappointed or self-satisfied that I didn’t get what she was intimating immediately.
This client is chronically anxious about, well, everything. She’s been, in her words, “psychotically careful,” about the coronavirus. Trish, a sixty-something Chicago native, had a severely neglectful mother and an emotionally absent father. She’s the kind of person for whom calamity lies in wait around every corner.
“Wow, I’m sor — ”
“Can you fucking believe this shit? I haven’t done anything or been anywhere. I’ve been hold up in this damn apartment since March.”
This isn’t quite true. Trish works part-time in an office (real, not virtual) and stays with her partner several nights each week. She is, however, careful to wear a mask and to avoid clumps of people in the grocery store and on the street. She is low-risk health-wise. It really was surprising to me that, of all the people in my caseload, she was the one who came down with the virus.
“I need to find a lesson in this,” she told me. “Why did this happen to me?”
“What comes to mind?” I coaxed.
We sat silently for a long moment.
“I always want to keep everything under control. And I couldn’t do anything to prevent myself from getting sick. Maybe the lesson is that there are certain aspects of my life that aren’t up to me?”
“What implications might that have for you going forward then?”
“My mother made it seem like I needed to be scared of everything.”
“Yes, I recall.”
“She wouldn’t let us out of the house to play unless it was 72 and sunny. When we were sick she literally locked us in the bedroom and left meals on a tray outside the door.”
“So when you got sick now…”
“It just proves she was right all along. Bad shit happens. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Nothing? You take care of yourself. You exercise, you meditate, you do your gratitude journal every day. You’ve been following all the CDC guidelines, right? You have some say-so in what goes on in your life, yeah?”
“I’m in one of those black or white things, right? It’s not all or nothing.”
“I think so. We have agency in some aspects of our lives. Other things…”
“Not so much!” Trish showed me some teeth, sincerely this time. “Maybe I can take a few more risks — when this is all behind us.”
Calculated risk-taking has been a perennial theme in our work together. It’s easy for Trish to mentally jump to the worst-case scenario no matter the situation. Discerning the difference between outright danger and reasonable risk is challenging for her.
Fortunately, Trish’s symptoms were mild. She’s just about recovered after ten days of sneezing, coughing, and body aches. But I’ve not yet recovered from this session. I know I’m not alone in this, but every time I get a bit of a scratchy throat or sneeze twice in a row I think, That’s it. I’ve got it. I’m dead. I’m being extremely cautious about exposure. I hardly leave the house and, when I do, 95% of the time I’m in the car and my wife, who’s at much lower risk than me, runs the errand.
If I become infected with the coronavirus, one thing I doubt I’ll be able to do is laugh.
*Certain identifying characteristics have been altered for the sake of confidentiality.